The best museum shows I saw in 2011

3 Jan

Between making a couple jaunts to Dallas-Fort Worth and launching this road trip — wrapping up my final day in New York, I’ve now been at-large for more than a month — I was able to include several non-Houston exhibitions in this year’s top-10 list, which was difficult to whittle down to 10. I have a feeling it would have been even harder if I’d made it to Southern California for the Pacific Standard Time exhibits by year’s end. In an upcoming post, I’ll note the Houston shows that would have made a Bayou City-only cut, plus a few other honorable mentions.

1) The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, on view through Feb. 12 at the Dallas Museum of Art — curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot; organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of the Gaultier survey at the Dallas Museum of Art. Photo: Devon Britt-Darby

In my Houston Chronicle review, which turned out to be my swan song, I wrote that “the Gaultier show makes a slam-dunk case for his importance as a contemporary artist, and it does so in spectacular style. Each room’s thematic installation enchants without distracting from the couturier’s mind-boggling craftsmanship and wild imagination.” The shows’ theatrical elements — including its 30 animated, talking mannequins, which sound gimmicky but ultimately encourage appreciation of Gaultier’s creative and social philosophies and embrace of unconventional beauty standards — as well as its many fresh ensembles that combine ready-to-wear garments with couture pieces made decades later meet his wish to avoid a “cemetery exhibition.” The exhibition grounds Gaultier firmly in a broad contemporary art context by juxtaposing his work with that of other artists, including Pedro Almodovar film clips and paintings by Victor Vasarely and Richard Lindner drawn from the DMA’s collection by coordinating curator Kevin W. Tucker.

2) de Kooning: A Retrospective, on view through Jan. 9 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Curated by John Elderfield. The way the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s play out on canvas, Masonite, composition board and paper; the astonishing black-and-white abstractions of the late 1940s; the decades-long tug-of-war with the female figure and landscape that yield endless bumper crops of of imagery and things we previously didn’t know paint could do — it’s all here in this embarrassment of riches.

3) (tie) Donald Moffett: The Extravagant Vein, on view through Jan. 8 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver. There’s so much great stuff here, from Moffett’s often extremely sculptural use of oil paint to the way he extends post-World War II traditions of “attacking” painting into healing metaphors for the age of AIDS to the way he smuggles social and political content into the act of “lighting” some paintings with video projection, as in the title series featuring video images of the Ramble, a lushly planted area of New York’s Central Park that has been both a gay crusing ground and the site of violent attacks on gay men for more than a century.

3) (tie) Upside Down: Arctic Realities at the Menil Collection. Curated by the late Edmund Carpenter, who died in July. In my Chronicle review, I wrote that the environment created by light artist Doug Wheeler for this Eskimo artifacts show is “the first thing you notice, and for many viewers – myself included, I must admit – was the show’s initial attraction. But to Wheeler’s considerable credit, his handiwork recedes as the tiny, ancient artifacts – as well as a group of much-larger 19th-century Yup’ik masks from Alaska, which are installed in window-like cases lining one of the walls – come into focus.” The anti-didactic Menil also helpfully met visitors halfway by doubling down on the information available in exhibition brochures.

5) Carlos Cruz-Diez: Color In Space and Time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez. I called this six-decade survey long overdue and admired the way it traced “Cruz-Diez’ progression from the social realism of his student days — even then, color was a top priority — through the development of an experimental language that broke away from nature and destabilized the picture plane. One type of idealism — the belief in depicting social conditions — gives way to another, the desire to make viewers participants in his art.” More on Cruz-Diez’ view of color as a “situation” or event is here in this interview.

6.) Gifts of the Sultan: The Arts of Giving at the Islamic Courts, on view through Jan. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Curated by Linda Komaroff; organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. An exhibition of unprecedented scope and size for the MFAH, whose Arts of the Islamic World department is at the toddler stages. The quality of artworks here — including Islamic silk carpets and textiles woven with golden thread; jewelry and objects fashioned of precious metal; containers fashioned of jade, ivory, or rock crystal; elaborately illustrated manuscripts and illuminated Qurans; enameled and gilded glass; carved and inlaid wooden furnishings; and jewel-encrusted arms and armor — is exemplary for the MFAH, which will never have a large Islamic collection but can and should aim to acquire the best stuff available. And the gift-giving motif is an intriguing way to weave together such disparate works of diverse cultures. Best of all, departed MFAH curator Francesca Leoni provided magnifying glasses for up-close viewing of the stunning Mughal miniature paintings.

7.) Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, on view through Jan. 15 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Curated by Sarah C. Bancroft; organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport, Calif; and the Modern. Tyler Green, at the top of his game, has a pitch-perfect appreciation of this heavenly show here. To which I’ll add just this: Diebenkorn, particularly in the abstractions he made for a 20-year period starting in 1967 — Green calls them “the apex of 20th-century abstract painting practice” — mastered scale in a way that never fails to boil me over. A small Ocean Park painting on paper — or even on a cigar-box lid — feels just as monumental as the hugest canvases he painted.

8.) Andrei Molodkin: Crude, on view through Feb. 12 at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. Curated by James Harithas and Alan Schnitger. To really feel this hard-hitting solo exhibition’s maximum impact, preface your visit by stopping by the main installation in the Menil’s Walter De Maria: Trilogies. There you’ll see De Maria’s restored and altered 1957 Chevy Bel Airs — the ultimate gas guzzlers, monuments to the days of cheap, plentiful oil, temporarily housed in a temple of art built by Schlumberger money. Then go to the Station and get a load of this:

Molodkin makes us confront the gooey substance that makes not just the Menil but every aspect of modern life possible, as well as how our dependence on it entangles all of us. The sight of oil flowing — sometimes smoothly, sometimes barely at all — through pristine Plexiglas sculptures is made all the more powerful by the sound the compressors make, which is somewhere between gunshots and the sputtering sound a bag of popcorn makes near the end of its cooking time in a microwave. Molodkin’s ballpoint pen drawings of U.S. oil/war presidents and his text pieces, which hit like a gutpunch, further reinforce the show’s wallop.

9.) Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Curated by Bill Arning and João Ribas. From my Chronicle review: “Anyone who brings a cellphone to the exhibit has more computing power in his pocket than VanDerBeek could ever tap, even when he was making computer-generated films using the first moving-image programming language at Bell Labs. Yet the first museum survey of this underground filmmaker, installation artist and new-media pioneer’s work couldn’t be better suited to an institution that defines itself as ‘an idea and a place shaped by the present moment.’ Technology wasted no time leaving VanDerBeek’s innovations in the dust, but we’re still catching up to their implications. …

“The VanDerBeek survey and its catalog join CAMH’s outstanding 2010 retrospective for long-overlooked Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson as major achievements, the kind of reclamation projects that demonstrate the crucial role contemporary kunsthalles have to play in the development of art history.”

10) (tie) A New Rothko Hanging at the Menil, in celebration of the Rothko Chapel’s 40th anniversary at the Menil Collection. Curated by Toby Kamps; and Mark Rothko: Perceptions of Being, on view through Jan. 22 at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. Curated by Amy Brandt.

The Menil hanging of three of the “alternate pair” paintings Rothko made for the Rothko Chapel, which is still on view according to the museum’s website, not only engulfs viewers in a darkly powerful environment but makes you realize just how much damage the paintings in the chapel have suffered over the years, not least because of the artist’s insistence on a skylight that let in too much of the Texas sun for too long.

Also in a single gallery, the Chrysler Museum joins its wonderfully idiosyncratic Rothko, No. 5, Untitled, 1949 with five paintings from the National Gallery of Art to create a room that works improbably well as both a mini-retrospective and an immersive environment. “I have made a place,” Rothko once said; amazingly, this room extends that place temporally across every phase of his career.

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